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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

My Name is Nobody: An Odyssey


Nick Cheung is Nobody. Um, why?

In 2000, Aman Cheung Man directed My Name is Nobody, a surprisingly dark gambling film starring Nick Cheung and Shu Qi. Some viewers might have wondered, why is Nick Cheung’s character named “Nobody”? Is this a reference to the occasionally nameless swordsmen who populate Chinese wuxia books, movies, and comics? I’m guessing it is, at least partially. But the true origin for the name of this Wong Jing-produced film will take us on an odyssey of sorts, leading us from Hong Kong to the Italian West to the Greek Island of Ithaca.

Any fan of Spaghetti Westerns will recognize that the title is a direct lift of the Sergio Leone-produced, Tonino Valerii-directed 1973 film, My Name is Nobody. Starring Hollywood legend Henry Fonda and Italian Western star Terence Hill as the titular character. Somewhat of a comedic re-imagining of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, Hill’s “Nobody” forms an alliance/rivalry with Fonda’s Jack Beauregard, an aging gunslinger who wants nothing more than to hang up his pistols and flee to Europe for a long retirement. Eventually, the two gunmen clash in a duel that results in one of the best  visual/verbal punchlines in cinema history. A sequel entitled Nobody’s the Greatest (aka A Genius, Two Partners, and a Dupe) was produced in 1975 with Terence Hill once again reprising his role. Curiously enough, during post-production, some of the original negative was stolen and the filmmakers were forced to cobble together the film from various outtakes.


Terence Hill as Nobody

But while 1973’s My Name is Nobody is clearly the source for the English language title of Aman Cheung Man’s 2000 film, the character of “Nobody” actually goes back to a time way before Leone, Valerii, and Sergio Corbucci ever started making Italo-Westerns. For the origin of the name, we must look to the ancient Greeks — Homer, in particular. In Book Nine of Homer’s The Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus and his men dock their ship on an island of Cyclopes. Returning from the Trojan War, the men search the island for food and supplies. Their journey takes them inside a cave, which — unbeknownst to them is the private residence of a gargantuan Cyclops named Polyphemus. When the one-eyed giant comes home with his flock of sheep, he discovers Odysseus and company and traps them in the cave by rolling a huge boulder to block the entryway. Polyphemus then proceeds to smash, tear, and ingest some of Odysseus’ men. Clearly, things don’t look good for our heroes.

However, the ever-cunning Odysseus tricks Polyphemus into imbibing an incredibly intoxicating wine provided by the gods. While drunk, the Cyclops asked for Odysseus’ name. The hero replies, “Nobody.” In exchange for the wine, the Cyclops pledges to give Odysseus a “gift” — unfortunately, it’s simply a proclamation that he will eat “Nobody” last!

Infuriated at Polyphemus’ inhospitable reaction, Odysseus and his men wait for the Cyclops to pass out and begin sharpening the monster’s humongous club, plunging the tip into a small fire.  The Greek captives then combine their strengths to shove the fiery, makeshift javelin into Polyphemus’ eyeball, immediately blinding him. Responding to Polyphemus’ cries of pain, his Cyclops buddies gather around the outside of the cave and ask who’s trying to kill him. His response?

“Nobody, friends”– Polyphemus bellowed back from his cane– ‘Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” (Fagles 224)

And so, the other Cyclopes leave Polyphemus alone and walk away.

The next morning, Odysseus hatches an ingenious plan to escape and later proclaims his true identity to Polyphemus, a mistake of sorts, considering that the Cyclops’ father is none other than the god Poseidon. If there’s anything you can learn from Greek mythology it’s this: don’t piss off a god.

Odysseus and the Cyclops

 Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens

So, if you thought My Name is Nobody was just a peculiar, altogether throwaway title, now you know the truth. And like those GI:JOE cartoons taught me all those years ago, knowing is half the battle.

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